Turkey Pulse

Syrian Kurdish commander: We're 'ready to engage' with Damascus

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Article Summary
In an interview with Al-Monitor, a Syrian Kurdish commander says the United States should stay in Syria during the post-Islamic State process.

RAQQA, Syria — Mazlum Kobane is the chief commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and, as such, the chief interlocutor of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State (IS). The 45-year-old commander, widely known as Gen. Mazlum, is at the helm of the campaign to retake Raqqa, the self-styled capital of IS, which is in its final stages. Kobane, who displays an avid interest in politics beyond his military skills, has earned himself fame in Washington, where his name is frequently mentioned at various panels.

Coalition officials who know Kobane are full of praise for the SDF commander, who has been in close contact with Brett McGurk, the US special presidential envoy to the anti-IS coalition, and US military commanders, much to the frustration of Ankara, which insists he belongs to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). According to some coalition officials, Kobane is acting independently from the PKK — which is listed as a terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States — and might even turn his back completely on the group down the road.

Al-Monitor caught up with the mysterious commander on the Raqqa front for his first-ever interview with the press. Good-humored, cheerful and confident, he spoke in fluent Turkish and displayed the mastery of a diplomat, sidestepping a number of challenging questions without actually refusing to answer them. A native of the Syrian border town of Kobani, as his surname suggests, Kobane commented on a wide range of issues concerning the Kurds, the future of Syria and the role of big powers.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  How is the Raqqa campaign progressing?

Kobane:  The Raqqa campaign is going on as planned. We had planned several stages, and now we can say we are approaching the final stage. Let me put it like this: We are completing the penultimate stage before the final one.

Al-Monitor:  Where is the focus of the fighting at present?

Kobane:  In the city center; I mean the eastern and western parts at the city’s southern gate have been liberated. There is the center and a bit of the north left. We have liberated 75% of the city.

Al-Monitor:  Are you advancing faster than you expected?

Kobane:  No. It is going as planned.

Al-Monitor:  How many IS militants remain in Raqqa now?

Kobane:  Close to 700, according to our intelligence and information we have obtained from former [IS] members. Those are fighters, and most of them are foreign nationals. In addition, there are 1,500 pro-[IS] militiamen in the city.

Al-Monitor:  What was the most difficult part of the Raqqa operation for you?

Kobane:  The operation has been exacting on two aspects. First, the need to not hit civilians. As you know, [IS] has been using civilians as human shields. The second is the widespread [use] of the mining tactic. Almost all houses and business places have been mined. About 2,000 civilians have been taken captive by [IS], and they are escaping whenever they can.

Al-Monitor:  There is criticism that the coalition’s airstrikes in particular are resulting in too many civilian casualties.

Kobane:  We follow that in the press. I think the issue is being exaggerated on purpose to slow down the operation. There were certain casualties, but not as much as in Iraq. I think the number is in the dozens, not in the hundreds. And this has happened in areas where [IS] was using civilians as a human shield. This is the main reason why we have slowed down the operation.

Al-Monitor:  There is also criticism concerning refugee camps.

Kobane:  Certainly, we have had difficulties on this issue. We have a security problem here. First, [IS] militants have been sneaking out, along with civilians fleeing the city. We have seen many cases like that — hundreds of cases, maybe even more. These people are mostly natives of Raqqa; that is, Syrian Arabs. But there are also foreigners among them and, of course, [IS] families.

Second, the United Nations is not officially present here. We are making efforts to remedy the situation. Civic groups were late in providing assistance, and the means of our government institutions are rather scarce.

Al-Monitor:  Has the central government extended any help?

Kobane:  No, they have nothing to do with it. The central government is even obstructing UN assistance.

Al-Monitor:  You had some serious problems with the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] on keeping the borders open, on entries and exits through the border crossings. Since the start of the Raqqa operation, however, we see that those problems have abated and that both humanitarian aid and US weapon supplies for the SDF are now easily coming in.

Kobane:  All assistance is coming in through the Semelka border crossing via southern Kurdistan [Iraqi Kurdistan]. The central government is not helping at all, and the KRG had maintained its obstructive stance in the beginning of the Raqqa operation; that is, in June and July. Things have relaxed since August, and the United States’ efforts have been important in securing this.

Things would have been much easier if Turkey had kept the border open. All these difficulties might not have occurred at all, and we might not have faced this criticism on the care of civilians fleeing Raqqa. Brett McGurk tried very hard to convince Turkey to give up its current attitude, and he informed us on this, but unfortunately, he failed.

Al-Monitor:  Looking beyond Raqqa, the move for Deir ez-Zor has already begun. There are reports that regime forces have crossed the Euphrates River and that a race is underway between the SDF and the regime. What is your strategic objective after Raqqa? It seems that you launched the Deir ez-Zor move earlier than the United States and the coalition had planned.

Kobane:  That’s true. The liberation of Deir ez-Zor is a wish of the Syrian people. The Deir ez-Zor military council was established two years ago. The people of Deir ez-Zor took part in the battles for Manbij and Raqqa, and gave many martyrs. They are a fundamental component of the SDF as well. We launched this operation earlier on their request, and it is going on.

Al-Monitor:  Are you planning to go all the way to al-Bukamal?

Kobane:  Our goal is to go as far as we can. Deir ez-Zor has to be liberated from [IS].

Al-Monitor:  There seems to be uncertainty on how far the United States wants to keep up the joint operations with the SDF after Raqqa. It is also trying to avoid conflict with Russia, but still things are heating up.

Kobane:  That’s true. We don’t want to clash with anyone other than [IS]. There are some very sensitive balances here. Various forces are intertwined. There are the plans of the Syrian regime, the Iranian militia and Hezbollah on one side, and our liberation promise to the local people we support on the other. Those two are in conflict. The other side receives air support from Russia and we from the coalition. There is a certain difficulty there. The coalition is trying to avoid conflict, and so are we. I think there will be an understanding at a certain point.

Up until now, there was no boundary between the regime and us. We had [IS] between us. Both of us were fighting [IS]. Now we have met up. Things have come to a critical threshold. We are trying to avoid fighting with anyone other than [IS], but we will defend ourselves if need be.

Al-Monitor:  You have displayed an exemplary cooperation with the United States and the coalition thus far. Yet this has been limited to military operations against IS, while you have also a demand for a status from the United States and the international community. This demand has not received acceptance, mainly because of Turkey’s pressure. And the United States has been telling you that ultimately you need to compromise with the regime, preferably without [President Bashar al-] Assad at the helm. Moreover, the United States is willing to leave the Syrian Kurds’ guarantorship to Russia. It is reluctant to engage too much politically.

Kobane:  That’s right. The United States has had this approach and it still has it. According to us, however, this is not the right approach. In our view, the United States should get engaged. The international community has a responsibility toward the Kurds and all the Syrian people. The United States has a responsibility, just as Russia does. We too believe that preventing another civil war in Syria [in the future] is important. If another war erupts, terrorist groups such as [IS] will rise anew and threaten the world. If the international community wants to eradicate terrorism, Syria has to be stabilized. That’s why all powers, including the United States, should assume their responsibilities to that effect. We want the United States to stay here.

Al-Monitor:  Until a regime change?

Kobane:  From our point of view, what is needed is a government that truly represents the Syrian people.

Al-Monitor:  What you describe is a regime change, but neither the United States nor Russia is enthusiastic about it. Even Turkey, which championed the regime change, has given up on its efforts.

Kobane:  That’s right.

Al-Monitor:  Even if the United States stays, it seems it will do so within the framework of the anti-terror perspective. After the defeat of IS, it might focus on other groups such as Shiite militia and al-Qaeda-linked factions. And there might be a role for the SDF in this context as well. You Kurds have been fighting IS alongside the coalition beyond your own areas, sacrificing your lives. Yet the United States and the international community refuse to recognize the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which brings together all the ethnic and religious groups in the region, including the Kurds. So how far are you prepared to go in sacrificing your lives while they withhold political support from you and refuse to recognize a status for you or have diplomatic ties with you?

Kobane:  We, the Kurds, liberated our areas from the regime first — without much loss of life. I’m talking about 2012. Our intention was to stay away from the war between the regime and the opposition and to develop, strengthen and defend our own areas. But the areas we liberated came under attack [by] the groups known as Jaish al-Hour, then [Jabhat Fattah al-] Nusra and now [IS]. And all those attackers were our neighbors. Most of the attacks came from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. So, we were forced to fight to defend ourselves. That’s the essential reason why we are currently fighting in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. How far this will go on is an important question. … We know, however, that [IS] will be defeated militarily in Deir ez-Zor. Yet this doesn’t mean that terrorism will be over in Syria, and this will require the war to continue. Once defeated militarily, [IS] will return to guerrilla warfare — its favorite form of war.

The regime is a threat to us at present. There are also the Shiite groups aligned with the regime, which are a threat to us as well. We don’t want to fight with anyone, but we will defend ourselves. If the regime and its allies launch an operation against us, it will affect not only us, but I think it will lead to a fresh wave of chaos and instability in the region.

But yes, one has to come to terms with the current regime. The Syrian regime is a reality. Militarily, the regime has won a victory against the opposition — the opposition other than us, I mean — at least in the areas it is currently present. And looking at things objectively, the regime is here to stay.

Al-Monitor:  And what about Assad? Is he on his way out?

Kobane:  I see no sign that he is on his way out at present.

Al-Monitor:  Could the United States accept Assad staying on?

Kobane:  This I don’t know, but at the end of the day, the future of the areas we liberated is important to us. Our essential objective is to negotiate with the central government and get a certain status for the areas we liberated. If required, we are ready to engage in dialogue with the central government on this.

Al-Monitor:  Don’t you think you will have difficulties in obtaining the rights you want from the regime without the backing of a powerful actor such as the United States or Russia?

Kobane:  We have good relations with the United States and Russia. We have open political channels with Russia, and the United States is already here.

Al-Monitor:  Where do you think the Astana process and especially Idlib stand in the bargaining between the big powers on the future of Syria?

Kobane:  The regime has priority plans for Idlib in the near future. The regime and therefore Russia and the other forces want to secure a cease-fire there so that the regime and its allies can assault Deir ez-Zor with full force. That’s the immediate objective, and they have succeeded in it to some extent. If regime forces are advancing in the Deir ez-Zor desert, in Badia today, this is thanks to forces shifted from the Idlib front. The long-term objective is to move on Idlib. And they will take Idlib, which, I think, will be to Turkey’s detriment.

Al-Monitor:  Why?

Kobane:  Turkey has a Kurdish phobia. It renounced its aspirations for Aleppo just so it could prevent us from joining our [cantons]. Now it's about to renounce its aspirations for Idlib so as to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurds, from [advancing there].

Al-Monitor:  But Turkey has given up its campaign for regime change in Syria, so why should it care about Idlib anymore — especially if it gains an advantage over the Kurds in exchange for its cooperation?

Kobane:  True. Russia gave Turkey the green light to move into Jarablus in exchange for shelving its ambitions over Aleppo. Now it's [Russia] doing the same thing for Deir ez-Zor. By securing a cease-fire in Idlib, Turkey is freeing up regime forces to concentrate on Deir ez-Zor and to win back that territory before our forces do.

Al-Monitor:  When you consider what is happening in northern Iraq, what kind of conclusions do you draw with regard to your own position? The United States has put in a lot of effort to stop the referendum on independence from being held. How do you evaluate this?

Kobane:  We support the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the Kurds dream of uniting the four parts [in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria] and to establish an independent Kurdistan. That is the goal. But there are also realities. … Let me be perfectly clear: Our aim is to establish a federal system in Syria, to remain part of Syria.

Al-Monitor:  US officials say they are encouraging you and the YPG [People's Protection Units] to distance yourselves from the PKK. At the same time, the United States is said to be discussing joint operations with Turkey against the PKK. These allegedly include targeting top PKK commanders such as Cemil Bayik.

Kobane:  I don’t believe that taking any kind of [hostile] action against the PKK would serve the United States’ interests. I don’t believe it will do this. And if assassination plans are being discussed, this is not a good thing.

We represent the people of Rojava. And the people of Rojava will never enter into any relationships that would harm the interests of Kurds living in the other parts of Kurdistan. They cannot. We have our own distinct policies in Rojava, and we are looking out for our own interests. It is out of the question that we assume a belligerent stance vis-a-vis not only the PKK but any Kurdish national force regardless of who asks us to do so. We will not. We want to have good relations with Turkey. The PKK may be fighting Turkey, but the people of Rojava and Turkey have common interests. Until America came here, to Kobani in 2015, we had good relations with Turkey. Our politicians were going to Ankara and meeting with Turkish officials. Our relations with Turkey broke down only after America and the coalition came to Rojava.

Al-Monitor:  Are you saying “if the PKK is fighting Turkey, that does not concern us, we are separate”?

Kobane:  Yes, it is so.

Al-Monitor:  But Turkey sees things differently. It places you in the same category as the PKK. And in 2013, when peace talks between the Turkish state and [PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan were still ongoing, it is said that Rojava was part of the bargaining that took place. But when the sides failed to agree on Rojava, the talks collapsed. If talks between Ocalan, the PKK and Turkey were to resume, Rojava would surely be part of the negotiations again.

Kobane:  True. But the main reason that our relations with Turkey broke down is not the PKK. That is an excuse. The main reason is the strategic relationship that developed between us and the United States. This aggravated Turkey’s phobias, its fears. Moreover, the largest number of Kurds live in Turkey, and that, too, is why it is opposed to our gains in Rojava. It also opposes the referendum on independence in Kurdistan.

Al-Monitor:  So are you saying if the United States withdraws from Rojava your relations with Turkey will improve?

Kobane:  No, I am not saying that.

Al-Monitor:  Why do you believe Turkey did not join forces with you against IS, which also threatens Turkey?

Kobane:  Turkey had its own calculations with regard to [IS]. Turkey was expecting Kobani to fall [to IS], and that is why it did not support us. To the contrary, it collaborated with [IS]. Had Mehmet from Turkey and Azad from Rojava fought shoulder to shoulder against [IS], this would have bolstered the peace process in Turkey and shattered the prejudices prevailing against us in Turkish public opinion.

Al-Monitor:  Can peace be made with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Kobane:  Wallahi it’s hard. But if he concludes that Turkey is not getting anywhere with its current policies, he will accept us in the end. Erdogan is a pragmatic person. And if the peace process resumes in Turkey, this will, of course, have a positive effect on us as well.

Al-Monitor:  You began your struggle within the ranks of the PKK?

Kobane:  Yes, but that was a long time ago.

Al-Monitor:  You know Abdullah Ocalan personally, and it is even said that he loves you like a son?

Kobane:  Yes. I knew him when he was living in Syria. Leader Apo lived here for 20 years. And he got to know almost all the [Kurdish] families here. In Aleppo. In Damascus. In Afrin. Leader Apo is a reality of this region that cannot be ignored. Let me explain. Leader Apo is a philosophy, an ideology. The PKK is an organization, a party, a movement. We cannot reduce Rojava to a single movement. There are all kinds of people living here. There are Arabs, from Raqqa, from Hasakah. … There are Circassians. There is the PKK. There is the KNC [opposition Kurdistan National Council]. There are those who support [Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud] Barzani. There are those who support the [Assad] regime. But PKK sympathizers constitute the majority. And there are Arabs here who want to learn about leader Apo’s philosophy and who embrace it. There are thousands of our people who were martyred fighting in the ranks of the PKK. But Rojava is not composed solely of PKK sympathizers.

Al-Monitor:  Can you elaborate?

Kobane:  We are responsible for the [Kurdish majority and mixed] areas that we govern under the leadership of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, as well as for the areas that we newly liberated. If we fail to come to an agreement with the central government in Damascus, the status quo in this region will prevail. And there will either be an agreement or war, much in the same way things were in [Kurdish-controlled] northern Iraq in the 1990s.

Al-Monitor:  But there are major differences between northern Iraq and Rojava. Albeit reluctantly, Turkey helped the Iraqi Kurds. It opened its borders to the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks and the Iraqi Kurds never fought each other. Turkey was something of a life-support system for Iraqi Kurdistan. But it erected a wall along its Syrian border. And it regards you as enemies, as being identical to the PKK.

Kobane:  Turkey’s claims that “Rojava is all PKK” or that “the PKK calls all the shots in Rojava” do not reflect the reality. But despite this fact, this is how Turkey seeks to present Rojava. Turkey says “Rojava equals the PKK.” This is not true.

Al-Monitor:  It is said that without the PKK’s support you would have never achieved the strength and influence that you currently enjoy in Syria.

Kobane:  The PKK did extend a lot of support [to Rojava]. It contributed significantly to its success. But the most important source of our success is the people of Rojava themselves. Its youths. How was the YPG established? Yes, there were those who fought in the PKK and elsewhere among its founders, and when the conflict erupted in Syria a group of such people returned to Syria. But it was not a large group.

Al-Monitor:  You were part of that group?

Kobane:  Yes. I returned in the spring of 2011. There were around 30 of us. But had thousands of local youths not joined and had not the local people extend their moral and material support, an army as powerful as the SDF could never have been formed. The [anti-IS] coalition began providing us with weapons only recently. Before the Americans arrived, we liberated many areas with our Kalashnikovs. If the support of our people, if the valor of our youth is not seen as the fundamental cause of our success, we will draw the wrong conclusions. The success of this place is its own strength.

Al-Monitor:  Why is Turkey so uncomfortable with you?

Kobane:  We have been neighbors with Turkey for six years now. Their border posts are on the [Turkish side], ours are just opposite. And not a single security problem has occurred within these six years. Yet the PKK organized attacks inside Turkey during these six years. All hell broke loose. Before we won control over these borders, there used to be clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces here. But I repeat, over the past six years there haven’t been any problems. As you know, Qamishli and [the Kurdish-majority town of] Nusaybin [in Turkey] are adjacent to each other. Nusaybin was destroyed before our very eyes. Had we been identical to the PKK or had we been the PKK, we would have entered the war against Turkey as well. And we would not have hesitated. Qamishli would have fought for Nusaybin. So would have Derik and Kobani. But they didn’t. This means this place has its own [unique character]. Is this of no consequence? This [difference] needs to be explained. Our six-year-long experience amply demonstrates that we do not constitute a threat to Turkey. These six years are the least problematic years that Turkey has enjoyed on its borders with Rojava. This, in turn, means that the PKK and the YPG are not the same. The people of Rojava, its administrators, its political parties, have their own distinct strategies, their principles. They act in accordance with the interests of Rojava. What has this to do with the PKK? Rather than focusing on who worked where in the past, Turkey ought to pay attention to the reality before it.

Besides, America has been here now for two years, and it too is aware of the reality that I have described. When the cease-fire collapsed [in 2015] between Turkey and the PKK, we did not join the war. In fact, Turkey attacked us and targeted me directly … in Qarachok [in April 2017]. Many of my subordinates and a friend I was very fond of were martyred. In the end, we used our right to self-defense. We did not let our colleagues die in vain. We retaliated against Turkey. And if they hit us again, we will hit them back.

Al-Monitor:  If the regime attacks you, will America rise to your defense?

Kobane:  They promised to defend us. And [when regime forces attacked us] in Tabqa, they did. They shot down a regime plane. We would like to trust America.

Al-Monitor:  For someone who has been in the PKK for so long, who has been exposed to leftist ideology, how has working with the world’s No. 1 imperial power, America, and with its soldiers and diplomats influenced your worldview?

Kobane:  People learn all the time in life. There is nothing wrong with that. We gained a lot of experience in military terms. Before the Americans came, we were already fighting [IS]. We were relying on our own means. After the Americans came, airstrikes came into play and we developed a new system of combat.

Al-Monitor:  Did the Americans learn anything from you?

Kobane:  We are self-sacrificing. We have self-reliance. We have courage. They learned this from us. We built the SDF together with the Americans. I gave it its name.

Al-Monitor:  An American general mentioned that during a panel discussion. You came up with the name overnight, he said.

Kobane:  True.

Al-Monitor:  Should the United States withdraw from Syria, there is speculation that your alliance with the Arabs will crumble and that you may even come to blows with them. Are you worried about this?

Kobane:  We have common interests. But our alliance with the Arabs is not only based on common interests but on a common fate. We are working for a common future for a democratic federal Syria, where all people live equally. [The Arabs] tried [working with] everybody. At first, they were with the regime, then they fled from the regime and joined the Free Syrian Army. They joined Jabhat al-Nusra and finally [IS], and in the end, they came to us and they want to stay. They trust us.

Al-Monitor:  There are claims that you forcibly recruit Arabs to the SDF and that you murder those who refuse to join.

Kobane:  Nothing of the kind has happened, nor would it be allowed to. We sent those who did not want to fight in Raqqa back home.

Al-Monitor:  Who pays the YPG’s salaries?

Kobane:  Our administration does.

Al-Monitor:  What about those of the Arab fighters?

Kobane:  We pay those too, though America has begun paying for some of them — for around a fifth of the fighters. As I said, we would like America to remain. The American forces here want to remain as well. But it is the politicians who will decide whether or not to stay, not the soldiers.

Amberin Zaman is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse who has covered Turkey, the Kurds and Armenia for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016. She was a columnist for the liberal daily Taraf and the mainstream daily Haberturk before switching to the independent Turkish online news portal Diken in 2015. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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